Incredible true-life story rendered sumptuously by Assante. Mbatha-Raw is delectable.
Amma Assante’s sophomore feature after 2004’s A Way of Life, Belle is a sumptuous costume drama set in a well-to-do 18th century London, and thereabouts, that’s chock full of terribly posh people and women bearing heaving bosoms, barely restrained by implausibly tight bodices. Dido Elizabeth Belle is one such beautiful lady of the manner, but her story, based on real life events, could not be further from the already stifling social constructs rendered by Jane Austen. She is a black woman in a British Empire built on slavery.
The illegitimate child of Royal Navy Captain John Lindsay (Matthew Goode, Watchmen, Brideshead Revisited), her father left her in the care of his uncle, Lord Mansfield – an excellent Tom Wilkinson – and his wife Lady Mansfield, played by Emma Watson. Initially horrified by the enormity of the then social impropriety, this soon gives way to doting, paternal love as we flash forward to an adult Belle, played with compelling warmth by the ridiculously beautiful Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
Belle shares an indomitable sisterly bond with the Mansifeld’s grandniece Elizabeth, an also great Sarah Gadon, and for all intents and purposes, they are a family, at least behind closed doors. When guests arrive, Belle is exiled to a sitting room until after dinner, when she can re-join polite company. As she laments of her peculiar position in life, “I am too high to eat with the servants, too low to join you at dinner.”
Further complicating this incredible story, Lord Mansfield is England’s Lord Chief Justice, who must presided over a genuinely historical case involving the slave ship Zong, in which all of its “cargo” was thrown overboard. This brings young but penniless aspiring lawyer John Davinier (Sam Reid) to their house, and into Belle’s affections, though she is engaged to another man, following her sudden social acceptability somewhat unsurprisingly hung on the fact that she comes into a rather sizable inheritance. Also tricky is the fact that poor Elizabeth, finds herself without a dowry, and is conversely overlooked.
Assante’s deft juggling of the historical basis and complex societal and legal ramifications makes for a fascinating journey, ably scripted by Misan Sagay and beautifully rendered by cinematographer Ben Smithard (My Week With Marilyn), but it’s the sterling cast sees Belle soar.
Stephen A Russell